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Meet the Kentucky State Forester: Brandon Howard

Brandon Howard
Kentucky State Forester
Kentucky Division of Forestry
Howard headshot

Our “Meet the State Forester” blog series introduces readers to the southern state foresters who are collectively responsible for leading the conservation, protection and enhancement of more than 245 million forested acres in the U.S. South. This month, we meet Kentucky State Forester, Brandon Howard.

Brandon Howard became the sixteenth State Forester of Kentucky in September 2020. In this role, Brandon serves as the director of the Kentucky Division of Forestry. Brandon earned his B.S. in Forestry from the University of Kentucky and joined the Division of Forestry as a forester in 2004. During his career with the Kentucky Division of Forestry and prior to becoming State Forester, he served in many roles including forester for the Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program, forester for two state forests, supervisor of the state forest system and forest protection manager (Fire Chief).

What is your agency’s mission statement?

The mission of the Kentucky Division of Forestry (KDF) is “to protect, conserve and enhance the forest resources of the Commonwealth through a public informed of the environmental, social and economic importance of these resources.”

Why did you become a forester?

Some of my fondest memories were spending time with my grandfather (who we called Papaw) and my dad in the forests behind our home. The time in the forest mostly involved hunting squirrel. Also, as a child, I remember a wildfire backing down behind our home. The complexities of that situation amazed me then and continue to do so to this day. All these memories led me to seek a forestry degree from the University of Kentucky.

What is your favorite thing about the forests in your state?

The mix of forest species composition within our forests in Kentucky. We have a great diversity of deciduous and coniferous trees and shrubs, numbering over 120 different species. While this makes tree identification more difficult, it gives us the opportunity to enjoy the vast variety of beauty that the forests of Kentucky have to offer.

How is forestry important to the economy of your state?

The forest sector represents a total economic impact of $13.97 billion, with $9.55 billion being a direct economic contribution. Within Kentucky, there are 27,000 jobs in the forest sector. Currently, the white oak is getting a lot of attention. This is due to white oak being a critical component of our bourbon industry. The bourbon industry represents a $7.91 billion impact to Kentucky’s economy.

In your opinion, what is the biggest issue impacting forest landowners in your state and across the southern region?

This is a difficult question, because there are many issues that qualify. Since I must settle on one, I will choose the invasion of invasive pests, plants and diseases to our native forests. It seems there is a new threat that enters our state annually. It is scary to think of a day when our native forests have converted away from what our ecosystems and timber markets rely upon. These threats are difficult to contend with but it takes all of us working together to keep them in check.

What is your favorite thing to do while in the forest?

I enjoy walking through the woods, but a hazard of my profession is that I always notice the invasive plants encroaching on the forest. While there, I like to think about what we should do to remedy the issue. The challenge, though, is finding time and resources to put those thoughts into action!

What are the top five goals for your agency over the next 5-10 years?

This is a simple answer to a very complex question. Our agency’s relevance is vast, with many goals that are near the same level of importance. In 2020, we updated our Forest Action Plan to identify issues facing our forests and opportunities for remediation. I will go out on a limb and identify five goals, in no particular order.

  • Prescribed Fire: Our agency has embraced prescribed fire as a tool for reducing hazardous fuels, while also restoring ecological benefits. In order to have an effective prescribed burn program, we will have to build capacity.
  • Forest Health: Kentucky’s forests are being threatened by exotic and invasive plants, insects and diseases. An important function that our agency fulfills is early detection and rapid response related to these threats. Not all threats can be stopped; but we can use data to empower our citizens with the knowledge to make sound forest management decisions. Once again, for us to be most effective in this effort, we need to build capacity in this area with more boots on the ground.
  • Partnerships: The forestry community within Kentucky is full of organizations who enjoy working with one another as we strive toward common goals. Our partners may not always have identical goals but we always find common ground to help each other in areas that align with our overlapping missions. Though our partnerships are as strong as ever, we are always looking for ways to strengthen those bonds and continue moving forestry initiatives to the forefront.
  • Forest Management: Our agency was created in 1912 and our mission is still as relevant as it was on day one. Our forest economy starts with our forest landowners. A commitment from those landowners to manage their forests appropriately will lead to a sustainable timber resource for generations. One of our agency’s cornerstone programs is our forest stewardship program. My goal is to continue to add foresters who will be available for any landowner who desires to properly manage their forests.
  • Tree Nurseries: Our agency operates two bare-root seedling nurseries. As the country looks to grow more trees and engage in reforestation, our tree nurseries need to be ready to meet those demands. Our operations have increased efficiencies in recent months, including the presence of an online seedling store. We are also striving to increase the production of seedlings to better reach the communities and forests throughout our Commonwealth. Trees are the answer, so we need to grow them!

How does your agency work with local and municipal partners to conserve your state’s forests?

As our population grows and shifts toward our cities and towns, it is more important than ever to help communities learn about the environmental, economic, social and human health benefits of our rural and community forests. Our agency’s urban and community forestry program staff and field staff help to educate partners on urban forest conservation, tree care practices and “right tree, right place” principles so communities can enjoy the many benefits that forests offer. This is accomplished through the Tree City and Tree Campus USA programs, youth and adult educational programs, professional trainings for municipal partners and assistance with local Arbor Day events.

Why are the adoption of water quality Best Management Practices (BMPs) important to your state?

In 1998, the Kentucky General Assembly passed the Kentucky Forest Conservation Act. This framework provides for a partnership between the Kentucky Division of Forestry, the University of Kentucky Department of Forestry and the Kentucky Forest Industries Association. Having such a partnership makes the process of BMP implementation successful. Together, we train loggers in appropriate BMP implementation on harvest sites. This practice reduces the amount of sediment that reaches our waterways. We have committed to making a conscious effort to mitigate erosion through education and enforcement. It has been a success for partnerships in our state and we are proud to be a part of that success.

How is your agency working with communities and municipalities to encourage forestland retention?

Our staff work with municipal partners, volunteer and non-profit organizations, and educational institutions to implement management practices for existing trees and forests. We also help to implement several annual community reforestation events to expand our forested areas in the state. Over the past 23 years, Reforest the Bluegrass in central Kentucky has helped to reforest hundreds of acres through volunteer tree planting, invasive species removal and tree care.

How is prescribed fire important to the landscape of your state?

Prescribed fire is an amazing tool that can accomplish multiple objectives within a single prescription. For our agency, the most important aspect is hazardous fuel reduction. Kentucky has its fair share of wildfires that threaten homes and damage sellable timber stands in our state. By reducing buildup of burnable vegetation (fuel), using low-intensity prescribed fire, catastrophic wildfire can be mitigated. Applying prescribed fire across Kentucky’s landscape will be beneficial for the safety of our agency’s firefighters and citizens, as well as our forest resources and infrastructure. Prescribed fire also has ecological benefits. Through this practice, habitat is restored for many wildlife and plant species that depend upon a consistent fire regime. Our agency continues to work with partner organizations to further this practice across the Commonwealth.

How do partnerships play a role in wildfire response in your state?

Our agency is responsible for wildfire suppression and prevention on all private, state and locally owned lands throughout the Commonwealth of Kentucky. This is a responsibility that we take seriously – and we realize the best way to accomplish this feat is through partnerships. We train with our federal counterparts in the U. S. Forest Service, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service, and we share resources when needed to accomplish our goals. The same goes for our state agency counterparts in the Southern Group of State Foresters and the National Association of State Foresters. The more we work together and help each other on wildfire suppression and wildfire training, the better we make each other. We are a tight-knit group of wildfire professionals, much like a family.

We are also grateful for our state and local partnerships who help us, time and time again, to battle Kentucky’s wildfires. Our state’s Fire Commission, along with countless local fire departments, help us battle these wildfires when necessary. Also, our state’s Emergency Management Division is a trusted partner who is always generous with their support of our mission when requested. Our agency is thankful for partnerships at all levels.

What is your favorite tree species?

The yellow poplar is my favorite tree. This is likely due to the large one that grew near my first childhood home. I remember being amazed by the towering height of the tree. The admiration of this species continued as I managed two state forests in southeastern Kentucky. I can recall harvesting yellow poplar from Kentucky Ridge State Forest with six merchantable logs per tree in some timber stands. The towering height and available merchantable timber in the yellow poplar continues to amaze me.

What is your favorite native Kentucky animal?

Probably the Eastern gray squirrel, as I remember my papaw loved to spend time in the forest hunting.

What are some of the biggest forest health challenges in your state and how is your agency working to address them?

Emerald Ash Borer has already ravaged most of our state and is making its final push through western Kentucky. Now, we are monitoring Laurel Wilt Disease as it moves through and kills our sassafras trees. The key for our agency is to develop more capacity by adding personnel to address these issues through early detection and rapid response techniques. By doing this, we can equip landowners and partners with real-time forest health information, and empower them to make positive management decisions before the threat arrives to their forest.

What is your agency doing to support the use of trees and forest products as a carbon solution?

A vibrant, robust and healthy forest system is the best method for reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in our air. By supporting good forest management and working towards healthy forests, Kentucky landowners can create the most efficient carbon sequestration tool possible.

Smokey Bear or Woodsy Owl?

Smokey Bear shows up to most of our wildfire prevention programs, so I have to stick with Smokey!

What is one thing you want people to know about your agency?

The Kentucky Division of Forestry has a vast mission and that mission is relevant today. There are approximately 12 million acres of forested land in our state, which is half of its land mass. The great employees of our agency work continually to promote our mission. One of the many contributions to our forests includes wildfire suppression. Many of these employees spend weeks upon weeks away from their families protecting the citizens of the Commonwealth of Kentucky from devastating wildfire, as well as assisting other states across the nation. I am continually humbled by their sacrifices, as wildfire suppression is extremely complex and challenging. The employees of the Kentucky Division of Forestry are committed to protecting life, property and resources of our state and nation. If you happen to get an opportunity to speak to one of our wildland firefighters, please thank them for their service.

What is the best thing about being the Kentucky State Forester?

I began my career with the Kentucky Division of Forestry and have remained with this agency for my entire career. Since I have these experiences, I enjoy being an advocate for our agency. Part of that advocacy is building partnerships. I started my career by building local partnerships and witnessing how much more can be accomplished when we all work together towards a common goal. I enjoy applying that principal at a statewide level. I am honored to have the opportunity to show how forestry is relevant to Kentucky by serving as Kentucky’s State Forester.